Today we were excited to learn that Crenshaw Communications has earned a spot on the New York Observer’s list of New York’s Top Specialty PR Agencies. With just 50 slots to recognize New York City’s top PR firms every year, the Observer ranked agencies in each of 10 major categories that define the industry. As a leading technology agency, we were delighted to be recognized by the NYO’s tech hot list and described as a “brainy firm.”
2016 had plenty of the kind of the kinds of news-making crises that public relations people dread. It was a year of surprises, setbacks, and scandals. Here’s our list for the top stories that damaged brand reputations, wrecked careers, and kept media and PRs working overtime.
Samsung’s product recall gets heated
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 showed every sign of being the blockbuster it needed to challenge Apple. But shortly after its launch, the Note 7 had to be recalled after reports that the devices overheated and even caught fire. Samsung’s swift decision to pull the product at first looked smart and proactive, but things didn’t cool off. Replacement devices had to be recalled after they, too, showed defects. Worse, Samsung bungled the management of the product recalls by failing to coordinate with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. and its customer communication was slow and inconsistent. Research shows that Samsung still commands a loyal following, so the damage is likely to be temporary. The communications lessons, on the other hand, will be covered in crisis management classes for many years.
Lochte loses luster
For a 12-time medal winner, U.S. swim team star Ryan Lochte was a loser when it came to his behavior at the 2016 Olympics. His drunken vandalism of a Rio gas station might have been overlooked if he had ‘fessed up to the bad behavior, but Lochte chose to concoct a nutty, self-aggrandizing story about being robbed by gun-brandishing bandits, which particularly outraged the image-conscious Brazilians. Then he fled the country, leaving his teammates to answer to authorities. After he was busted for lying, Lochte admitted the truth and formally apologized for “not being more careful and candid.” As of December, his reputation was recovering, thanks to a crowd-pleasing turn on “Dancing With The Stars” and the announcement that he and fiancée are expecting a baby next year.
Theranos’ falls victim to its own PR
Talk about bad blood. For the once-promising biotech startup, 2016 was the year that things fell apart, following fresh repercussions from revelations that started late last year with an investigative report in The Wall Street Journal that questioned its claims. The fall of Theranos was particularly dramatic because it was in many ways a victim of its own hype. The story of a new blood-testing technology for clinicals that needed only a single drop of blood was irresistible to media, and founder Elizabeth Holmes was a PR dream. But as it turned out, many things about the secretive startup were just too good to be true. Until the Journal‘s John Carreyrou started digging, the press was too dazzled by Holmes’ youth and accomplishments to spot its flaws, and even the company’s Board of Directors, which was packed with boldface names, failed to see trouble. After Carreyrou filed 12 more stories about Theranos in 2016, it became the target of criminal and civil investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The ultimate account of the insider who blew the whistle on the company is riveting – part suspense novel, part Shakespearean tragedy.
Wells Fargo’s phony accounts exposed
After it came to light that millions of fake customer accounts were set up by Wells Fargo staff to pad their sales figures, the bank agreed to pay $185 million to settle claims, and CEO John Stumpf apologized and vowed to do better. But Stumpf at first seemed to blame rank-and-file employees, 5300 of whom were fired over the scandal. He then shifted gears and communicated his own sense of accountability for the situation, telling members of the Senate Banking Committee, “I accept full responsibility for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business, and I am fully committed to doing everything possible to fix this issue, strengthen our culture, and take the necessary actions to restore our customers’ trust.” That was the right move, but for Stumpf, it was a case of too little, too late. He retired in October, and Wells Fargo is still grappling with the reputation impact.
EpiPen price causes outrage
Move over, Martin Shkreli! Heather Bresch, CEO of pharmaceutical company Mylan, became the poster child for industry greed in 2016. After public outrage over Mylan’s 400% price increases for its flagship product EpiPen, Congress launched an investigation, and it wasn’t satisfied with Bresch’s answers. Mylan swiftly responded to the crisis with favorable pricing for those without adequate health insurance, and a plan to launch a generic version of EpiPen, but the backlash continues. Mylan’s stock has dropped from $54 at the beginning of the year to $36.60.
Vulgar comments on a bus nearly derail the Trump train
Beware the hot mike. The lewd boasts that Donald Trump made 11 years ago during a taping of “Access Hollywood” were probably the biggest reputation story of 2016, and that’s saying something. When Trump bragged about kissing and grabbing women without their consent, it sparked a national reaction and for a few days at least, threatened to derail some key endorsements. But the Trump campaign insisted it was “locker room talk” and responded with help from a team of surrogates and a (perfunctory and defensive) video apology by Trump. In a second wave of crisis response likely devised by Steve Bannon, it counterattacked by dredging up Bill Clinton’s sexual history. We all know how the story ended.
NC business goes down the drain with “Bathroom Bill”
When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed HB2 – legislation to regulate use of public facilities by transgender individuals, he unleashed a torrent of controversy – and ultimately, his own electoral defeat by one of the slimmest margins in history. The governor tried to frame the “Bathroom Bill” as protecting individual privacy, but a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups and big business, including major technology companies, eventually prevailed against the spirit of the law. HB2 gave rise to serious and prolonged economic boycott of the state by major corporations and sports organizations, flushing away an estimated $600 million in revenue. McCrory’s narrow defeat helped clear a path to the bill’s repeal or modification.
Email hack bedevils Democrats
The Democratic National Committee grappled with its own surprise leak earlier in the summer of 2016 when private emails became public. The DNC moved quickly to limit the damage; Chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz and other key party officers promptly resigned in the wake of the scandal. But the problems for other Democrats were just beginning. Clinton campaign director John Podesta’s emails were obtained by Russian hackers and released by Wikileaks, and although the material lacked a bombshell, the slow drip of embarrassing material was a repeatedly picked up by the press. It distracted the Clinton team from its message and placed it in an awkward position when questioned about the resulting material. All in all, the hacks were a reminder to all of us that employee behavior needs to adapt to the security risks we all run every day.
Fake news is big news
Fake news made some of the biggest headlines in 2016. The many false stories that went viral leading up to the election fueled concerns that we’re entering a “post-factual” era when trust in legitimate media will only decline. The good news is that some of the smartest technology and journalism minds are working together to offer solutions. First, Google and Facebook announced they won’t support the ad technology for fake news sites, and Facebook has said it’s devising a range of countermeasures to flag false articles. More recently, Upworthy ‘s Eli Pariser and others have started The Truth Project, which is looking at Chrome extensions, fake-news-blocking-apps and even blockchain technology to rid us of the fake news plague.
An earlier version of this post ran on MengBlend.
As we gear up for whatever public relations challenges we face in 2017, it seemed a good time to make sure we “do this and not that” when it comes to strategic communications. The old notion that any PR is good PR does not apply in today’s climate, if it ever did; a public mistake will sully a reputation quicker than you can say negative virality. So, as the new year approaches, here are our rules for advice to avoid.
“Don’t be too prepared for that CEO interview”
One chief executive told us that a PR consultant recommended “winging it” for an important media interview, lest he sound too scripted. We’d like to politely disagree. For our client interviews, we prepare briefing docs, hold a prep session and practice interviews until a level of level is achieved. And, we do it again for every interview since different journalists have different interview styles and subject matter shifts all the time. Don’t believe that you can be too prepared, particularly in the case of a live on-camera interview.
“A new product introduction needs a media event”
With media outlets cutting staff and a plethora of press parties competing for attendees, events just don’t have the pull that they used to. Though media events for truly innovative launches or with a captive press audience (at a conference like CES) can work, they are often overly expensive and bloated affairs that don’t deliver on expectations. We find a combination of judicious use of media exclusives, in-person or Skype product demos and informed and well-prepared spokespeople can often achieve better results more cost-effectively.
“The best way to measure PR is by the number of interviews secured”
Quantity over quality? We don’t think so. Judging a team’s performance solely by how many interviews they can arrange for an announcement is a poor way to determine effectiveness. PR goal-setting should start from a more strategic place. Typically clients should be asking who is our target customer and what media do they consume. For some B2B clients, a story in a highly targeted trade journal is much more effective than coverage in top dailies. Overall the best PR partnerships include joint goal-setting for media relations and reviewing on a regular basis.
“It’s OK to fudge the truth to get your foot in [the media’s] door”
This is a doomed strategy on so many levels. To begin with, nothing ruins credibility with media quicker than telling them something that is proven untrue. A company associated with a lie also faces a nearly impossible climb back to media (and public) trustworthiness. The better strategy is to hold reasoned discussions with a client to determine what the real news is, and if the company has nothing earth-shattering to work with, it’s our job to create currency with a survey or point of view that’s full of good facts and figures the media can use.
“You can do PR by yourself!”
The best PR campaigns come from a combination of great understanding of client messaging, keen knowledge of media needs, and a flair for packaging a story and making it timely. It’s a complicated skill set, which we’ve written about before, that requires experience and finesse and the work is typically not something you “want to try at home.” Sure, the occasional amateur outreach can touch a reporter and result in a positive story. But more likely than not, it will result in abject silence, or worse, backfire into something negative or unexpected.
Our best advice? Leave the PR work to the professionals.
Some PR pros consider Donald Trump a master of public relations. The $2 billion worth of media coverage his campaign earned helped him stand out in a crowded GOP field and win his party’s nomination. And one of Trump’s standout skills is his facility with Twitter insults.
No one is immune to the POTUS Twitter attack. He has gone after public companies, the occasional private citizen, and especially the press, both individually and en masse. In the most recent dustup,
Trump lashed out at @VanityFair, presumably for its very unflattering review of the Trump Grill.
But Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter is himself no PR slouch, and he’s a veteran of one of the most famous Trump feuds. Recognizing an opportunity, VF immediately threw up a subscription ad proclaiming it “the magazine Donald Trump doesn’t want you to read.”
It worked. Not only did the restaurant review attract over a million views, but VF subscriptions soared. Within 24 hours of Trump’s tweet, it added 13,000 subscribers, the highest number ever sold in a single day at Conde Nast.
Are Trump’s Tweets Good For Business?
I predict that organizations will now try to get bashed on Twitter by Trump because its so good for business. https://t.co/3y8W4BZ9Gd
— Katie Delahaye Paine (@queenofmetrics) December 16, 2016
So, are Twitter attacks from Trump something brands should welcome? I laughed when I saw Katie Paine’s tweet, but in some cases, companies can benefit from his ire, especially if they’re media brands. Trump has repeatedly insulted the press, slamming the “failing New York Times,” “lying CNN,” and lambasting a group of media at his first off-the-record meeting after the election for what he deems dishonest coverage.
Yet the insults haven’t harmed the press, at least not yet. The New York Times reported that it added 41,000 digital subscribers in the week following the election, the largest increase since it began offering digital subscriptions. Other major media and watchdog groups have said they’ve experienced strong surges in support, so it’s probably a general response by progressives to his election.
But what about other organizations? After Trump tweeted that Boeing’s new 747 Air Force One should be scrapped due to its $4 billion cost, Boeing’s stock price dropped, temporarily wiping out $550 million in shareholder value before rebounding somewhat the next day. A week later he hate-tweeted about the high cost of the F-35 fighter jet made by Lockheed Martin; it, too, was followed by a plunge in Lockheed’s stock price.
For a large public company, a nasty tweet from the President-Elect is like a lightning bolt – unwelcome, unexpected, and possibly dangerous. It can also work as a signal for supporters to pile on and will invariably attract unwanted media coverage.
So what’s a Boeing or a Lockheed to do? In some cases, nothing. If it’s a passing insult that’s more a matter of opinion or taste than fact, a nasty Trump tweet may be better left alone. Why risk picking a fight with someone who has a huge social bully pulpit unless unless the stakes are high?
In the case of incorrect information, however, a prompt response is warranted. That’s why Boeing’s statement detailing the facts of its Defense Department contracts was a smart move. Ditto for Lockheed Martin, which released details describing measures to limit costs for the F-35.
It seems that a nasty Trump tweetstorm can actually be good news for media, underdog brands, or any organization with a progressive customer base likely to rally in support of those values. But for a major public company, the challenge of a Trump attack is far trickier. Despite the unique nature of the POETUS Twitter, there are effective PR and media relations rules that apply here.
Respond quickly. Stories about Trump’s tweets (or seemingly off-the-cuff comments) will be picked up by news media instantly, so a delayed response won’t make it into the first news cycle. Given the blistering pace of news, a short, measured response beats a slower and more detailed one nearly every time.
But take follow-up offline. It isn’t always possible, but Lockheed’s offer to meet with Trump had the right tone. To litigate its case in the media, given the complexity of the fuller story, would have been a losing game. We saw this a year ago in the feud between Amazon and The New York Times through dueling Medium posts after Amazon’s Jay Carney objected to the paper’s feature on Amazon’s workplace culture. At some point, it devolved into a pissing match with no clear winners.
Be respectful. It goes without saying that a future president has the upper hand in a public conversation, no matter how aggressive his posts may be. Even Vanity Fair, which adopted a cheeky tone consistent with its brand, stopped short of being mean or vulgar.
Let advocates defend you if possible. Sometimes loyal customers, super-users, partners, and other advocates can do the “dirty work” of arguing with the president-elect, as in the case of Trump’s attack on Vanity Fair. Non-media companies, who are unlikely to have a natural constituency among members of the press, can still tap allies to speak up for what is factually correct.
Use humor. A genuinely witty response is a great leveler. “Modern Family” writer Danny Zuker, who famously feuded with Trump on Twitter way back in 2013, offers the ironic advice to choose your opponent wisely. Yet if Trump attacks them, brands don’t have a choice. But in his post, Zuker inadvertently offers the best advice of all about how to win a Twitter war. It’s simple: be funnier than your attacker. It usually helps.
Whether you run a tech start-up or manage an established brand, you may be looking to bring on a top public relations firm in the coming year. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to bringing on an outside PR team, and the search process can be daunting. Here are some shortcuts and advice to make the search go as smoothly as possible.
Define your goals. This is obvious, but in some cases an organization’s goals are not crystal clear, or a cross-functional search team may not be perfectly aligned, so all should be hammered out in advance. Some companies retain a PR agency simply to generate as many media placements as possible. If that’s the case, don’t pretend otherwise. Others want to maximize a product launch or mitigate reputation damage, while still others may simply want to attract funding from VC companies.
The goals will inform the type of program and the nature of the relationship. The most successful clients view an agency as a strategic partner and an extension of their own communications team, privy to C-level thinking and fully trusted with confidential material. But if a full partnership isn’t possible, the engagement can still be a productive one. The parameters simply must be communicated at the outset. Quality input leads to quality output; it’s as simple as that.
Stick to your timeline. The PR search can be painless for company decision-makers and competing firms if it’s well organized and the timeline is realistic. The goal is to allow ample time to meet with agency teams, gather capabilities information, create a shortlist and review proposals. To maximize a relationship with a potential firm, it’s important to prioritize the search process because to do otherwise sends a signal that you’re not serious. When companies veer off the original timeline, there’s a risk that a shortlisted firm will take on a competing project and be unable to work with you. Additionally, if too much time elapses, your company goals may shift, making existing proposals obsolete.
Discuss budget early in the process. A potential client will occasionally begin a PR agency search with no idea of what they should spend. There’s no magic formula, but there are ways to help determine an appropriate PR budget. The first step is to determine goals, desired outcomes, and the importance of earned media and thought leadership in the overall communications mix. Also ask: What is the overall marketing commitment? What industry or competitive initiatives are anticipated? What is the product launch timeframe? Answers to these questions will help determine the PR program’s scope. A crowded news calendar with regular announcements and events will require a more robust budget than a slow build for a new company. Once a budget is set, it should be shared. There’s nothing more frustrating than going down the road with an agency team, only to find they consider your budget too small to achieve desired results. For more tips on budgeting, research how agencies set budgets and the different ways they bill clients.
Dissect the client case studies. Client references are great, but does anyone ever offer a less than positive contact? A better way to determine agency fit is through careful examination of case studies that are relevant to your needs. Agency teams are happy to share cases with dazzling media results, so insist on a wide range of examples of work done for brands like yours, and avoid over-focusing on those that seem like a slam-dunk, like a sexy new product, a new category with inherent news appeal, or a celebrity-studded influencer program. Above all, make sure you’re speaking to the team members who actually did the work. It’s also helpful to ask how stellar media coverage or branded content pickup helped further business goals — in other words, look at outcomes over outputs. Those who have worked closely with clients to increase inbound leads, generate sales, or drive partnerships are worth considering for your short list.
Know who will handle your business. The best PR teams include a mix of veterans and fresh young talent. Before you sign, you should know who your team is and what their roles are. Ideally, you have access to the most senior staffer when discussing strategy and key decisions, but highly qualified junior staffers may handle other tasks. If so, they should be present at all meetings. Meeting face-to-face early in the process for a chemistry check is also advised to make sure personalities mesh well and to assess what kind of time and talent commitment they can offer.
Assign some homework. A smart way to see how an agency would rise to a particular, relevant challenge is to offer a PR scenario and task teams with drafting a strategic approach to meeting it. The responses can yield insight into the agency’s grasp of your business and its ability to size up a situation and offer meaningful solutions in something close to real time. Other potential assignments should be more open-ended. One enormous benefit of an agency relationship is the unbiased thinking that an experienced communications team can offer, and it’s smart to ask for a taste of that.
Finally, consider firms who do good PR for themselves. Part of any criteria for choosing a PR firm should be how well they promote themselves. Things to look for include quality and quantity of fresh content on the firm’s website; its social media footprint and reputation; industry awards and recognition; and occasional quotes from company leadership in major articles like this.
As almost 200,000 folks get ready for their annual excursion to Las Vegas for CES (Consumer Electronics Show), those of us who toil in B2B tech public relations will be looking for 2017 trends to take advantage of industry moves and stake out positions for clients. As we get ready for the new year, we’ve interviewed some tech PR specialists to get their take on what’s around the corner.
CX goes hard. In a world of rabid competition, the customer experience can be all that stands between delight and the dreaded zero stars on a review site. PR and CX go hand in hand, since it’s PR’s role to burnish a brand reputation and the job can only be done when the customer experience lives up to expectations. Good CX combines people, process and technology to understand, anticipate and consistently deliver a high-quality experience across all of a product or service brand’s touch points, from website to customer service.
In 2017 CX will evolve further, as B2B tech players adopt market strategies to offer a more personalized experience for customers that is rooted in a deep understanding of individual needs. The smart B2B PR team will leverage CX learning and experience to create compelling case studies and content. Everyone loves a story of customer service that goes above and beyond.
PR must function in real time. The exponential growth of digital media is a positive thing when it comes to engaging influencers and customers, as well as adjusting tactics as needed during a campaign. We’ve seen how powerful real-time marketing is for consumer brands that are active on social channels. The same opportunities – and challenges – exist for B2B services and products on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other, more niched social platforms. After all, enterprise software customers are likely to be watching the Super Bowl, tuning into election or inauguration news, or following stock market trend stories. And there’s also the defensive side of real-time marketing. Potentially negative situations can and do happen at any time with a miscalculated tweet or unhappy customer post. PR monitoring and oversight of social and customer relations channels is more important than ever, as B2B companies have learned to incorporate real-time marketing into their programming, according to Econsultancy.
B2B content will become more customized. Savvy content marketers have always written with specific audiences in mind. Ad tech clients want to speak to marketing decision-makers, 3D printing clients target prospective partners in medical or architectural sectors, and so on. 2017 promises to take the creation and promotion of content directed to a specific segment or prospect even further, using emerging tools and technologies like geo-location data to personalize language and pricing, or lead-driven content marketing software to customize email responses.
PR and content will become more automated and scaleable. It may seem like a contradiction for content to become more personalized, while also becoming more automated, but that’s the power of technology. Any marketer knows it’s impossible to manage social media and complex targeted outreach without marketing automation software and other tools. Earned media, paid media, and owned content can be enhanced and amplified through social tools and techniques. The latest technology for scaling content marketing may be the most promising. Artificial intelligence is poised to transform content creation, its curation, and predictive customer service, among other marketing and PR functions.
PR will embrace paid media. Between 2012 and 2014, organic social reach dropped from 16% to 6% –and wise PR counselors know they have to bite the “paid” bullet if they wanted to maximize social content. Paid reach is a typically part of any social strategy for B2B tech, and much like marketing embracing automation, PR will make the shift from organic digital to paid reach. The stats support this: paid advertising now accounts for 83% of marketers’ social media spending and, according to a recent study, 84% of marketers have now fully integrated social media with their traditional marketing activities.
B2B content must be shareable. Paid reach has its place, but we’re still chasing “viral” or highly shareable content. As election 2016 showed, social media has arrived as a primary news source. According to the often-cited News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, 62 percent of Americans get news from social media, and the number will only rise with Gens X and Y veering from conventional media sources to strictly online content. For B2B tech PR teams, the challenge is to craft the shareable story. We recommend asking these five questions when putting together a story with the goal of social sharing.
What’s the headline? Do this first. Make it simple and specific, you can add drama or something startling later, but get your story’s “promise” down before you start writing.
What’s your way in? Are you profiling a tech exec with an interesting background, crafting a stat-filled report or positing some predictions?. Organize before you write.
How is your story different? There are a million start-up stories out there, what makes yours special? Is it a young female CEO such as gaming client Arkadium’s Jessica Rovello or is it a monumental fundraise that will drive attention? Ask and answer.
Why would you share it? Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and see what they might feel when reading your story – intrigued? happy? angry? any of those are fine, as long as you achieve interaction.
What’s next? Think ahead – once the story is published, compile the metrics, read the comments and let them inform your next steps.
In 2016, public relations saw its share of highs and lows. But perhaps the most notable thing in the industry this year was the way it evolved, thanks in large part to constantly-changing technology. PR folks now have more ways to get their clients’ messages across than ever before. With the year dwindling down, it’s time to start looking ahead to 2017. Here are five predictions for the coming year.
PR Competencies Will Expand Both Vertically and Horizontally in 2017
Specialist firms will grow
Traditionally, PR firms have juggled a wide range of clients across many industries, and the largest agencies still do that, of course. But there’s been a shift towards specialist agencies that focus exclusively in PR for companies in sectors like technology, fashion or real estate. Clients find comfort in specialist expertise because they benefit from deep experience in relevant sectors, and because they’re not paying for the hefty overhead of an agency with staff in 30 different areas. As brands and organizations grow more sophisticated about the benefits of specialist public relations firms, many companies will look to them for their communications needs, possibly using multiple specialist partners rather than a single large agency.
PR professionals will need a broader range of skills
For as long as the discipline has existed, communications and writing skills have been instrumental to success. But these two alone aren’t enough to cut it in today’s PR landscape. With the rise of social media, digital technology, and more, PR professionals have to stretch. Creative content development, influencer outreach and integrated communications require broader skills – like research and analytics, digital design and production, and risk management, which has matured into a critical communications function linked closely to legal strategy. There are also “softer” skills and steps we mentioned in an earlier post – that will help superstars break out from the pack and thrive in this ever-changing industry.
Data will be even more important to public relations
This past year saw an uptick in the way data is used in PR. Tools like Digimind help to easily monitor and analyze complex sets of data in areas like social media, and as the technology advances, PRs are finding new ways to use it to communicate, from surveys to keyword-rich content. But data can also inform an overall communications strategy and its messaging, as many PR agency teams know. The best plans take advantage of the fact that social media data offers real-time information as well as historical. Social platforms have been around for nearly a decade now, providing a wealth of historical data about the behavior and preferences of their audiences. A good PR pro knows how to dig into these insights to help identify emerging trends, old and new customers, anticipate and predict market shifts, and take advantage of tactics that have proven successful in the past. Expect social and market insights to have a greater impact in the coming year as options advance, and the industry finds new ways to apply it to fine-tune programming.
Influencer marketing will be front and center
Tapping digital and social influence is the rallying cry of many brands when it comes to gaining ground with key constituents and customers. And PR agencies have become adept at strategically targeting the right influencers in the right industries through appropriate social media channels. This strategy has proved invaluable in growing the Small Town Brewery flavored craft beer line. Crenshaw has repeatedly tapped its “beer friendlies” – a community of craft beer enthusiasts, bloggers and Instagrammers who hop on each new brew and brand activations that are less about product attributes and more about corporate responsibility or brand values, like Small Town’s recent “Movember” campaign. Influencer marketing will only become more popular and results-oriented as its role grows within brand marketing and reputation management programs. Check out these tips from experts that give some insight into the best ways to dominate the influencer marketing game.
Technology and tools will evolve
Technology has changed the way we consume information, from smarter cell phones to the explosion of video, and particularly live streaming through platforms like Periscope and Facebook Live. Yet public relations is not scaleable in the way that digital advertising and direct marketing are. But in 2017, fueled by data use and software tools, the earned media outcomes and social media exposure that result from PR programs will increasingly help to scale other key metrics of brand health, including organic search results, social awareness, and inbound website traffic. And while technology will continue to evolve, it seems that robots, which we know are poised to take over so many jobs, aren’t entering PR just yet. According to some McKinsey research into the least automatable jobs, PR is up there in the top five. Enjoy it while you can!
For anyone building a career in public relations, there’s no better environment than a PR agency. If you wind up in a specific sector, like technology or healthcare, an agency of any size is a solid starting point. If your work takes you on a corporate or nonprofit path, the broad experience gained at a PR firm will offer a foundation.
Agency experience is useful no matter where a PR career goes. The multiplicity of clients enables exposure to a variety of businesses and industries, and by definition, an agency guarantees immersion into a culture of communications expertise. Even for those who leave PR, skills like business development, client interaction, and staff management are useful for any career.
But agency life is not without stress. We serve many masters, including clients, direct bosses, and media. Deadlines are harsh, and productivity is a daily performance metric. Here’s how to thrive at any PR agency, large or small.
Don’t expect a 9-to-5 gig
Agency viability rests on the productivity of its staff and the talent of every team. Like any professional services business, it’s affected by unpredictable client workflow, up-and-down demands, and after-hours client needs. An added twist for any PR agency is that an unanticipated news event, reputation crisis, or negative story can trigger hours of unexpected work. Anyone expecting regular hours and calm days will be quickly disenchanted.
Learn the business of agencies
It’s key to understand any client’s business, and that’s one reason why experience is so valuable over time. But it’s also essential to learn how an agency makes a profit, how it builds a clientele, and how it shapes its own reputation. A grasp on the formula for agency business success is a winning formula for a career at a PR firm.
Overprepare for any client contact
We love our clients and often feel warm and friendly toward them. That’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t blind anyone to the need for rigorous preparation for even the simplest client conversation. They’re paying us not only for specific deliverables and outcomes, but for expertise and counsel. That comes with solid and disciplined preparation. By the same token, it’s a good rule to treat senior staff like clients – preparing before formal interaction, covering the details and anticipating questions.
Even the most nurturing agency culture is competitive in some ways, and inexperience doesn’t mean newbies should be passive. Raise your hand, show curiosity, and make observations. Proactivity is greatly rewarded at all but the largest and most bureaucratic of agencies. PR professionals are recommenders, so development of a thoughtful point of view or proposed solutions to problems is a vital skill.
A little like Steve Jobs’ famous advice to “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” one of the keys to success at an agency is to keep learning. We’re in a period of rapid media and technology change, and the most potent fuel for staying ahead of trends and curves is a keen intellectual curiosity. There’s no better job security than a personal commitment to continuous learning.
Learn to work under deadline
If you can’t deal with deadlines, you shouldn’t be in the agency business, and you probably shouldn’t be working in PR. In a typical PR firm, the sense of urgency is heightened because we’re dealing with a dynamic news environment, but also because client review and approval time must be built into all materials and recommendations.
I’m one who thinks that “personal branding” can be overstated, but it’s always smart to apply basic PR principles and skills to your own reputation, particularly in a large and layered environment. What do you want to be known for? What does your agency value? What sets you apart from the rest of the team? Finding and showing the answers to those questions will help build a career-long brand.
Albert Schweitzer once said that there are two means of refuge from “the miseries of life” — music and cats. We think most public relations people would agree with that, at least about music. We also believe music can be a great motivator. It’s paradoxically a stimulus as well as a way to calm down and concentrate. As we head into the New Year, here’s a playlist of songs that can help do all of that and more.
When you’ve received a less than stellar response to a client proposal. Crank up Bruce Springsteen’s uplifting classic “Badlands” to give you the extra jolt of motivation you need to up your game – For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside/That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive/I want to find one face that ain’t looking through me/I want to find one place, I want to spit in the face of these badlands.
So psyched! You and your team just won a major piece of business. A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into researching, constructing and presenting the perfect proposal. But the excitement at being awarded the new account is exciting and meaningful whether its the first time or the 50th time. Once you land that new piece of business, it’s party time! And Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” is the perfect party anthem – I’m all the way up, all the way up/Nothing can stop me, I’m all the way up.
The agony of waiting to hear back from a journalist on a story opportunity. You know your pitch was perfect, the media contact has covered the category and you’ve followed up in a non-annoying manner exactly 1.5 times. In many PR situations, there’s nothing you can do except wait. Backed by the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty understands how difficult this feel is, as evident on his hit single “The Waiting” – The waiting is the hardest part/Every day you see one more card/You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part.
You’re on a tight deadline and it’s coming down to the wire. Every year PR earns the dubious distinction as one of the most high-pressure jobs. It takes grit to work in an industry full of deadlines and high client expectations. But PR die-hards thrive on such pressure and pride themselves on managing it with grace and aplomb. And Freddie Mercury of Queen and David Bowie understand what you’re going through, as evident on “Under Pressure” – ‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word/And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night/And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves/This is our last dance, this is ourselves/Under pressure.
You’ve had a busy week and you’re ready to get the weekend started. After a demanding week of satisfying client and company commitments, the entire PR profession takes a much deserved break (except for those weekends when there’s a client event, trade show or crunch time on an RFP.) It’s time to turn on some music and forget about the stress you’ve endured the previous week. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake is a perfect way to slip into the weekend – I got this feeling inside my bones/It goes electric, wavy when I turn it on/And if you want it inside your soul/Just open up your heart, let music take control. Seems there’s a perfect tune for every public relations situation.
Like many in PR, advertising, and journalism, I was relieved when Google and Facebook announced they would ban “fake news” sites from using use their ad services. By attacking the advertising model that supports sites like World News Daily Report and NewsBuzzDaily, they might help slow the viral spread of false, defamatory, and even dangerous stories. The move still won’t stop the patently fake stories in my Facebook stream, but it’s a start.
Fake content has been around as long as the internet, but as a culture, we didn’t take it so seriously until after the 2016 election. But after reports that some fabricated – and highly inflammatory – stories were more widely shared on Facebook than top legitimate news stories, many are concerned about the power and the prevalence of false news. The culmination (at least I hope it’s the culmination) of the dark consequences of such stories was the recent shooting outside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria that has been the subject of scurrilous rumors. Post-factual “news” isn’t just a threat to journalism or democracy – it’s a magnet for the mentally unstable.
I’m as concerned as anyone, but the furor also makes me think about where we draw the line between truth and so-called propaganda – sometimes known as PR. The case of Bell Pottinger, the UK PR firm that created fake insurgent videos as part of a contract with the Pentagon, made me wonder about the PR’s role in truth-telling. At one of my early PR agency jobs, the founder would begin every new business presentation with a story about how he started the business after working in propaganda for the U.S. Army. It was a seamless transition to promoting beauty products and soft drinks in the buoyant post-WWII environment.
Most PR isn’t propaganda, and government work – even disinformation campaigns – presumably serves a higher purpose. Certainly it did back in the days of WWII. But the slope can be a slippery one.
What can an honest PR person do?
Support legitimate media
PR pros do this anyway, of course, but for any of us, now is not the time to let our newspaper subscription lapse, or to cut back on your digital content subscriptions. Real news is hard – harder than ever, in fact, in the digital era – and that work costs money. Think twice before you download that ad blocker; it doesn’t really stop ads from counting and only erodes content quality.
Don’t cut corners
False stories and internet rumors don’t start all at once; they can result from a misperception or inaccuracy that was never corrected, leaving it open to further distortion. It’s incumbent upon PR professionals to be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote, and to hold both clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking.
We shouldn’t get lazy about attribution, even when it’s about widely cited information that’s publicly available. Everything counts.
Move swiftly to correct untruths
Like many PR professionals, we’ve had experience with web-based rumors that threaten a brand’s reputation. It can be tough to fight lies (and that’s what we should call them) without calling undue attention to them. In the case of our client, it was a vicious rumor started by a disgruntled blogger alleging the brand had ties to an illegal organization. We helped the client debunk the lies with the help of third-party groups who specialize in quashing misinformation.
Don’t give fake stories oxygen
Best not to share or link back to fake stories or publications (like the ones mentioned but NOT linked to here) unless it’s for purposes of having them banned by your social media platform of choice.
Storytelling hasn’t been done through mass media channels for a good while, but in the post-factual universe, communicators need to adapt. This post from Robert Wynne makes the point that because consumers are increasingly segregating ourselves by our media and content choices, PRs must reach important audiences not through mass persuasion, but with what he terms Tribal Persuasion and Micro-Persuasion.
Follow the money
That study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance – who funded it? As PR pros, many of us have deep experience promoting health news, often funded by large companies, and usually supporting the organization’s brand or bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with this. But we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding, and consumers of such news should take note of who pays, and who benefits.